Getúlio Dornelles Vargas (April 19, 1883 - August 24, 1954) was the president of Brazil from 1930-1945 and 1950-1954.

Getúlio Dornelles Vargas


Born in São Borja, Rio Grande do Sul, on April 19, 1883, descending from a traditional family of "gaúchos", he embarked on a military career at first, then turning to the study of law. Entering Republican politics, he was elected for the Rio Grande do Sul legislature and later for the House of Representatives, becoming the floor leader of his State in the Congress. He served briefly as Secretary of the Treasury under President Washington Luis from where he resigned to run for the government of his State. Elected president of the State of Rio Grande do Sul, he constituted a strong movement of opposition against the central government, urging the end of the voting corruption through the adoption of the universal and secret ballot.

Vargas and the Revolution of 1930

Between the two World Wars, Brazil was a rapidly industrializing nation popularly regarded as "the sleeping giant of the Americas" and a potential world power. However, the oligarchic and decentralized confederation of the Old Republic, dominated by landed interests, in effect, showed little concern for promoting industrialization, urbanization, and other broad interests of the new middle class.

Bourgeois and military discontent, heightened by the Great Depression's impact on the Brazilian economy, thus appears to have led to bloodless military junta on October 24, 1930 that ousted President Washington Luís and his elitist heir-apparent Julio Prestes. Anticlimactic as it was, this coup d'état was a watershed in Brazilian history—a liberal , bourgeois revolution that ushered out the political preeminence of the paulista coffee oligarchs. The military, traditionally active in Brazilian politics, installed Vargas as 'provisional president'. A populist governor of Rio Grande do Sul and the former presidential candidate of the Liberal Alliance, whom Prestes 'defeated' in a disputed election earlier that year,

Vargas was a wealthy pro-industrial nationalist and anti-communist who favored capitalist development and liberal reforms, but actually posed little serious threat to the elite paulista gentry. Vargas' Liberal Alliance drew support from wide ranges of Brazil's burgeoning urban middle class, who had grown frustrated to some extent with the poltics of coronelismo and café com leite.

Although Vargas ran strictly from within the partisan elite during this unsuccessful 1930 campaign on a populist and protectionist platform , the coup d'état laid the foundations of a modern Brazil that is highly industrialized, but still considered a part of the Third World.

However moderate these aims were, mild opposition arose among the powerful paulista coffee oligarchs who had grown accustomed to their domination of Brazilian politics. His tenuous collation also lacked a coherent program, being committed to a broad vision of modernization, but little else more definitive. Having to balance such conflicting ideological constituencies, regionalism, and economic interests in such a vast, diverse, and socio-economically varied nation would, thus, not only explain the sole constancy that marked Vargas' long career—abrupt shifts in alliances and ideologies, but also his eventual dictatorship , modeled surprisingly along the lines of European Fascism, considering the liberal roots of his regime. Vargas, in effect, sought to forge a corporatist, centralized state along Fascist lines to mitigate these disparate class interests and to quell disorder during a chaotic interwar era.

Interim Presidency

Vargas would develop in response a sort of legal hybrid between the regimes of Mussolini's Italy and Salazar's Portuguese Estado Nôvo , copied repressive fascist tactics, and conveyed their same rejection of liberal capitalism , but attained power baring few indications of his future quasi-fascist polices. As a candidate in 1930 Vargas utilized populist rhetoric to promote bourgeois concerns, thus opposing the primacy—but not the legitimacy—of the paulista coffee oligarchy and the landed elites, who had little interest in protecting and promoting industry. Vargas during this period sought to bring Brazil out of the Great Depression through orthodox policies.

Like Franklin Roosevelt, his first steps focused on economic stimulus. A state interventionist policy utilizing tax breaks, lowered duties, and import quotas allowed Vargas to expand the domestic industrial base. Vargas linked his pro-industrial policies to nationalism, advocating heavy tariffs to "perfect our manufacturers to the point where it will become unpatriotic to feed or clothe ourselves with imported goods." In his early years, Vargas also relied on the support of the tenentes, junior military officers, who had long been active against the ruling coffee oligarchy, staging their own failed revolt in 1922. Vargas also quelled a paulista female worker's strike by co-opting much of their platform and requiring their "factory commissions" to use government mediation in the future. Vargas, reflecting the influence of the tenentes, even advocated a program of social welfare and reform similar to the New Deal.

Constitution of 1934

The parallels between Vargas and the European police states began to appear by 1934, when a new constitution was enacted with direct fascist influence.

Brazil's 1934 constitution, passed on July 16, contained provisions that resembled Italian corporatism, which had the enthusiastic support of the pro-fascist wing of the disparate tenente movement and industrialists, who were attracted to Mussolini's co-optation of unions through state-run, sham syndicates. Like in Italy, and later Spain and Germany, Fascist-style programs would serve two important aims, stimulating industrial growth (under the guise of nationalism) and suppressing the left. Its stated purpose, however, like in Italy, was uniting all classes in mutual interests. The constitution established a new Chamber of Deputies that placed government authority over the private economy , which established a system of state-guided capitalism aimed at industrialization and reducing foreign dependency.

After 1934, the regime designated corporate representatives according to class and profession , but maintained private ownership of Brazilian-owned business. Based on a façade of increased labor rights and social investment, Brazilian corporatism, in Italy, was actually a strategy to increase industrial output utilizing a strong nationalist appeal. Vargas, and later Juan Peron in neighboring Argentina, another quasi-fascist, emulated Mussolini's strategy of mediating class disputes and co-opting workers' demands under the banner of nationalism. Under the guise of workers' rights also, he greatly expanded labor regulations with the consent of industry, pacified by strong industrial growth. While simultaneously expanding the mandated rights of workers, Vargas, like Mussolini, decimated unions independent of his state syndicates. The new constitution, drafted by Vargas allies, dramatically expanded social programs and set a minimum wage but also denied illiterates (largely the underclass) the right to vote and placed stringent limits on union organizing and “unauthorized” strikes.

Beyond corporatism, the 1934 constitution also heightened efforts to reduce provincial autonomy in the traditionally devolved, sprawling nation. Centralization allowed Vargas curb the oligarchic power of the landed paulista elites, who obstructed modernization through the regionalism, machine politics, and façade democracy of the Old Republic.

Vargas, the Intergralists, and the Suppression of the Left

Threatened by pro-Communist elements in labor critical of the rural latifundios, Vargas reigned in his shaky alliance with labor and began formally co-opting the less intimidating fascist movement.

As he moved to the right after 1934, his ideological character and association with a global ideological orbit, however, remained ambiguous—reminiscent of the early phases of leftist leaders Fidel Castro and Daniel Ortega. To fill this ideological void and promote his new rightist policies, Vargas began moving against the tenentes while encouraging the growth of fascist paramilitaries. Ingegralism, founded and led by Plínio Salgado, who adapted Fascist and Nazi symbolism and salutes and wore a square mustache like Hitler, offered Vargas a new political base in his collation. A green-shirted paramilitary organization directly financed by Mussolini and Hitler, Ingegralism's propaganda campaigns were borrowed directly from Nazi materials —excoriations of Marxism, liberalism, and Jews that espoused fanatical nationalism (out of context in the heterogeneous and tolerant nation) and "Christian virtues."

Vargas tolerated this rise of anti-Semitism , and might have acted upon the Intergralists' popularization of anti-Semitism. One example of his alleged anti-Semitism was the deportation of the pregnant, Jewish wife of Luís Carlos Prestes to Nazi Germany, where she would die in a concentration camp . Vargas' anti-Communism and increasing conservatism also encouraged an alliance between the government and the Catholic Church, similar to Mussolini's arrangement following the Lateran Pacts.

Vargas forced the Brazilian Congress to respond to the growth of the Aliança Nacional Libertadora (ANL), a leftist collation led by the Communist Party and Luís Carlos Prestes. A revolutionary forerunner of Che Guevara, Prestes led the legendary but futile 'Long March' through the rural Brazilian interior following his participation in the failed 1922 tenente rebellion against the coffee oligarchs. This experience, however, left Prestes and some of his followers skeptical of armed conflict. Still, nonetheless, Congress branded all leftist opposition as “subversive” under a March 1935 National Security Act that allowed the President to ban the ANL , which was forced—reluctantly—to begin another armed insurrection in November. The authoritarian regime responded by imprisoning and torturing Prestes and violently crushing the Communist movement through the state terror of the European police states.

Although "the father of the poor" expanded the electorate, granted women's suffrage, enacted social security reforms, legalized labor unions as a populist, Vargas whittled down the autonomy of labor and crushed a series of peasant revolts known as the cangaço.

The Estado Novo

Like the European Fascists, Vargas utilized fears over Communism to justify personal dictatorship. The fascist “Estado Nôvo” dictatorship, modeled after Salazar's fascist “Estado Nôvo” in Brazil's mother country, finally materialized in 1937, when Vargas was forced to step down as president by January 1938 because his own 1934 constitution prohibited the president from succeeding himself. On 29 September 1937, Gen. Dutra, his rightist collaborator, presented “the Cohen Plan” (note the Jewish surname) that established a detailed plan for a Communist revolution. The Cohen Plan was a mere forgery concocted by the Intergralists, but Vargas exploited it to have Dutra publicly demand “a state of siege” in a chain of events redolent of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler presented as a Communist conspiracy to justify a dictatorship. On November 10, Vargas, ruling by decree, then made a broadcast in which he stated his plans to assume dictatorial powers under a new constitution derived from European fascist models , thereby curtailing presidential elections (his ultimate objections) and dissolving congress.

Vargas, like Hitler in the Weimar Republic and Mussolini in the postwar Kingdom of Italy, consolidated dictatorial powers by acting within the established political system, not in a single coup d'état or revolution.

Under the Estado Nôvo, Vargas abolished opposition political parties, imposed rigid censorship, established a centralized police force, and filled prisons with political dissidents, while evoking a sense of nationalism that transcended class and bound the masses to the state.

Vargas and the Axis Powers

The resemblance between the Estado Nôvo and the European police states suggested to some interwar observers that Vargas' regime was simply a variant of the European Fascist model. Brazil appeared to be entering the Axis orbit—even before the 1938 declaration of the overtly fascist Estado Nôvo. Between 1933 and 1938 Germany became the principal market for Brazilian cotton, and its second largest importer of Brazilian coffee and cacao. The German Bank for South America even established three hundred braches in Vargas' Brazil. In May 1941, after the invasions of Poland and the Soviet Union, and the beginnings of the Final Solution, Vargas sent a birthday telegram to Hitler, using it as opportunity to convey Brazilian ambiguity, playing both sides against each other. Vargas dispatched a telegram to Hitler saying, “best wishes for your personal happiness and the prosperity of the German nation”. Such periodic overtures to the Axis Powers, along with rapid increase in civilian and military trade between Brazil and Nazi Germany caused US officials to constantly ask, "What is Vargas like and where does he stand?"

Vargas eventually sided with the Allies and liberalized his regime. The shrewd, low-key, and reasoned pragmatist sided with the antifascist Allies after a period of ambiguity for economic reasons , since the Allies were more viable trading partners, and liberalized his regime because of complications arising from this alliance. Siding with the antifascist Allies created a paradox at home not unnoticed by Brazil's middle class (of a fascist-like regime joining the antifascist Allies) that Salazar and Franco avoided by maintaining nominal neutrality, allowing them to avoid both antifascist sentiment at home arising from siding with the Allies or annihilation by the Allies.

Vargas thus astutely responded to the newly liberal sentiments of a middle class that was no longer fearful of disorder and proletariat discontent by moving away from fascist repression—promising “a new postwar era of liberty” that included amnesty for political prisoners, presidential elections, and the legalization of opposition parties—including the moderated and irreparably weakened Communist Party. Historian Benjamin Keen believes that such political liberalization contributed to the downfall of the Estado Nôvo, being substantial enough to provoke a 1945 military coup d'état led by Dutra and Monteiro, who were alarmed with Vargas' growing ties with labor and the working classes.

Second Presidency

Vargas returned to politics in 1950, and through the free and secret ballot he was re-elected President of the Republic.

His Administration was hampered by the economic crisis that affected the country at that time. Vargas would pursue in the end of his term a nationalist policy turned to the country's natural resources, to a lesser foreigner dependency and, within this scope he founded the PETROBRAS (Brazilian oil).

The positions assumed by his political adversaries led to a crisis which culminated in the crime of "Rua Toneleiros where the Major Rubens Vaz was murdered." This fact aroused a reaction against Vargas and the Army generals demanded his resignation. Vargas had a last try, calling the ministry special meeting on the eve of August 24, but rumors spread the news that the armed forces officers were inflexible. Feeling himself incapable of maintaining the situation under control, Vargas committed suicide on August 24, 1954.

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